Jerome Taylor (@ThatGuy_Rome)
Saying this year’s Temple men’s basketball team is young is an understatement. And the youthful Owls are still going through growing pains. But players like Khalif Battle will be pivotal in the Owls’ quest to reach their full maturity.
Khalif Battle (above) scored a game-high 26 points. (Photo: Gavin Bethell/CoBL)
The 6-5 sophomore guard led the Owls in scoring last year with 15 points per game, and through two games this season, he’s been the team’s primary scoring option. Battle scored 26 points in Saturday’s 76-71 loss to Southern California, and dropped 22 points in Temple’s 72-49 season-opening win over Maryland Eastern Shore.
In the season opener, Temple only led by one point at the half and had to rely on the second half run to secure the comfortable victory. The Owls had to rely on a strong second half again during their comeback bid against USC, trying to overcome a deficit as large as 23 points, due mostly to first half foul trouble and lazy defense.
“We're playing hard, and we're not playing as smart as I would like the guys to play. Just a lot of undisciplined plays, miscues that got us in the hole,” Temple head coach Aaron McKie said. “We got ourselves in foul trouble early, and it just kind of set the table for those guys… they were in the penalty ten minutes in. It is hard to win like that.”
Against a USC team that went to the Elite Eight last year, that deficit proved to be insurmountable. And even though Temple did do a good job containing USC’s key contributors Boogie Ellis (11 points) and Isaiah Mobley (9 points) to a combined 20 points, other players like Chevez Goodwin (19 points on 8-10 from the field) lifted the Trojans to their second win.
McKie is entering his third season leading the Owls, and after a 5-11 season last year, Temple is trying to right some wrongs. One of those wrongs that McKie thought was evident in Saturday’s outing was his team’s shot selection, which he thinks contributed to the Owls shooting 31 percent from the field in the first half.
“We've just got to continue to teach them, continue to show them the difference between when we move the ball, we move the defensive side to side, we get really quality shots, and when it sticks it we get bad shots,” McKie said about his team’s shot selection.
In the second half, though, the Owls were able to find a bit of a groove as well as a newfound confidence. That confidence reached its peak after Battle knocked down a three-pointer a possession after dunking off a Trojan turnover. The 6-5 sophomore's basket cut the lead to seven with just over 11 minutes to go in regulation.
From that point on, the Trojans’ lead would never exceed double digits, as the Owls were better defensively, and the Trojan’s scorching 60 percent first-half field goal percentage fell back to earth as they only shot 33 percent in the second half.
Aaron McKie (above) is 1-1 to start his third season at the helm. (Photo: Gavin Bethell/CoBL)
“We're just as good as anyone. I believe we can fight against anybody,” Battle said. “So I think once the team figured that out, I think that’s where the fight came.”
That confidence didn’t just extend to returners like Battle; his roommate, second-year freshman Nick Jourdain also began to feel the confidence. Jourdain’s defensive versatility proved to be a major factor in cooling off the Trojans as he finished with two blocks, three steals, five points and a career-high nine rebounds. And the 6-8 forward projects to play a major role in the Owls’ defensive scheme.
“I thought Nick came in and really gave us a shot in the arm. His versatility where we can play him at the power forward position and then we can move him to the center position, he moves pretty good out there on the floor, can be a tough matchup for a lot of guys,” McKie said “[He] cleaned up some miscues on the defensive side and really, you know, helped us get back in the game.”
Early career contribution will be a theme for an Owls team that only carries four juniors and seniors combined. Another one of those contributors is Battle’s and Jourdain’s other roommate, freshman Zach Hicks.
The 6-7 Camden Catholic (N.J.) product scored nine points and sparked the first run in the Maryland Eastern Shore game that allowed Temple to pull away. And on Saturday night, the forward hit his second three-pointer (bringing his total to eight points) of the game with under a minute to go to bring the game within four points.
“[Hicks] is a gamer. He doesn't blink… you can look in his eye late, and he wanted the moment,” McKie said. “We're throwing him in, and he's responding to it… he just got in there and battled with those guys. That's all we want to do, to give ourselves a chance.”
But with a chance to cut the lead to two with ten seconds remaining, Battle split free throws at the end of the game, one of Temple’s 13 missed free throws, showing the Owls are still working on reaching the pinnacle of what this group can be.
“Ultimately, I think we lost the game on the free-throw line, and I’m going to hold myself accountable,” Battle said.
After the loss, Battle remained optimistic about the Owls’ outlook this year, pointing to the second half of Saturday’s game as a model for what the team could be.
“I haven’t put a whole 40 minutes together. Nobody here has put a whole 40 minutes together,” Battle said. “I think when we do that all together as a group, it’s going to be something special.”